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Early Exploration on the Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan

Last Updated: 27th May 2008

By: Paul T. Brandes

Introduction

The Keweenaw Peninsula, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is home to the largest native copper deposit in the world. Between 1845 and 1996, the district produced approximately 15.5 billion pounds of copper. However, long before the age of “modern” mining, prehistoric peoples were mining and trading copper items across North America. Early explorers and fur traders also knew of the copper in the region.

Earliest Exploration

It is believed that the red metal of the Keweenaw was first exploited by prehistoric Indians between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. Little is known of these people, but the many excavation pits, stone tools, and other implements found on the Peninsula and on Isle Royale, 50 miles to the northwest in Lake Superior, suggest a very primitive yet active mining operation. A great benefit to the prehistoric peoples was the discovery of float copper. Float, for short, were pieces of native copper that were plucked from their outcrop and transported from a few feet to many miles by glacial activity during the last glacial maximum. The peoples must have thought it was a blessing to find masses of copper that required hardly any physical labour to collect, no smelting to purify, and there was literally tons of it lying around the countryside. American Indians not only picked up the easy copper, they also mined it. They used primitive tools to dig large pits, trenches, and shallow shafts. When done, they simply abandoned their tools and pits which could be as deep as 30 feet (Bornhorst and Lankton, 2006).

The first copper gatherers formed copper into many different shapes, depending on their need at that time. Many artifacts have been found including knifes, fishing hooks, jewelry, chisels, awls, axes, and many other decorative items and tools. Not only did the Lake Superior Indians use these items, they also traded these objects throughout eastern North America. Lake Superior copper has been discovered in prehistoric Indian sites all over the North American continent and especially in an area between Manitoba and the Maritimes of Canada (Martin, 1999).

Spirits of the North and the Early Europeans

Later Indian tribes that made their way across North America also recognized the importance of native copper on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Initially, these people also worked the area, but before the arrival of Europeans to the region, they mysteriously abandoned the area. When the first white people came to the Keweenaw, the local Indians that remained were very secretive in where their ancestors found copper. Local legends told of an event that occurred on Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior where four natives were gathering copper along the shoreline. While preparing a meal, they heard a loud, angry voice from the woods accusing them of “robbing the cradles of their children”. So terrified were the natives, they left immediately. It was said that before reaching land, three of them died, and the fourth lived just long enough to tell his tale at home before dying shortly after (Dablon, 1669-1670). Such tales and stories deterred many of the first Europeans from realizing the true wealth that lie in the Lake Superior region.

However, stories of spirits roaming the North Country wouldn’t keep the Europeans out forever. Early French fur traders such as Pierre Esprit Radisson and Pierre Le Sueur knew of the immense copper deposits. Le Sueur even formed a mining company in 1690, which later turned out to be a front for illegal trapping (Chaput, 1971). The first real attempt at mining came in 1734 when Louis Denis, commandant of a French outpost in Northern Wisconsin, sent samples of copper to Paris for analysis that were found near modern day Ontonagon, Michigan. When the results from Paris looked favourable, Denis proposed a full mining operation, complete with smelters and shipping operations. Denis did not foresee, however, that the Sioux and Chippewa Tribes that were still in the area would renew an old conflict that in effect halted all aspirations of large scale mining in the area (Kellogg, 1925).

Renewed interest in the area came after the British Empire seized control of the region from the French in 1763. Alexander Henry, an English fur trader, reported seeing copper in 1765 and in 1771, outfitted an exploration from Sault Sainte Marie. With a crew of miners, Henry sailed to Ontonagon and eventually to near Victoria on the Ontonagon River where he set up a winter base of operations. Henry left the post for the winter and in June of 1772 his entire crew had returned to the Soo with bad news. The mine had penetrated approximately 40 feet into the hillside which was composed of frozen clay. During the spring thaw, the unsupported tunnel collapsed, effectively ending the entire operation. Later it was discovered that even without the tunnel collapse, the venture would have been a complete failure; clay was not the host for the rich copper deposits, and the copper nuggets Henry’s crew found at the tunnel portal were likely carried there from basalt outcrops further upstream from their location.

Exploration by a New Nation

A fortunate event occurred in 1783. The Treaty of Paris was signed which recognized the United States of America as a legitimate country. It was fortunate for the Lake Superior region in that it was included in the infant nation, even though government officials had no idea of the incredible mineral potential. In 1800, Congress authorized exploration of the regions mineral wealth as well as what Indian tribes were still in control of the lands around Lake Superior. In 1820, Territorial Governor Lewis Cass, with the assistance of geologist Henry Schoolcraft, conducted a survey of Lake Superior’s south shore to examine older mining sites. Schoolcraft had heard of a large mass of native copper that Native Americans had known about for centuries imbedded in the rock along the Ontonagon River. The Ontonagon Boulder, as it came to be known, was later removed with great difficulty and confiscated by the U.S. government. The Boulder was then taken to Washington DC and put on display at the Smithsonian Institution where it can be viewed today.

Schoolcraft was so enamoured with the region that he led two more expeditions in 1831 and 1832. Accompanying Schoolcraft on these journeys was a bright young scientist and physician named Douglass Houghton. Houghton, too, fell in love with the region after he saw the copper deposits himself and even took samples from the Boulder before it was removed. Because of his great interest in the region, Houghton was appointed Michigan’s first state geologist in 1837. Between 1840 and 1845, Houghton visited the Keweenaw numerous times and made several important discoveries regarding the copper deposits. In 1841, Houghton published his first report on the geology and minerals of the Keweenaw Peninsula. In it, he cautiously reported that while the area showed promise, it should be carefully developed to avoid miners sacrificing all to gain nothing. Once Houghton’s report became public however, the chance of striking it rich was too much a temptation for many, ultimately starting one of the first mining rushes in United States history, some six years before the great California gold rush. Houghton had returned to the Keweenaw to complete work on a follow-up report in 1845. However, Houghton perished in a boating accident in the fall of 1845 in Lake Superior near Eagle River, Michigan. Had Houghton lived just a few years longer, he would have witnessed the region develop into the largest native copper mining district in the world.

The fruits of Houghton’s short yet extensive research laid the groundwork for the first successful mine in the Keweenaw, as well as the Western Hemisphere. That mine was the Cliff Mine, located near present day Phoenix, Michigan. The Cliff was the first of many mines that would operate over the next 150 years on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan, solidifying the Copper Country in history as one of the great mining districts of the world.

References:

Bornhorst, T. J., and Lankton, L. D., 2006. Keweenaw Copper: Geology and History. Great Lakes Geoscience, Ontonagon, MI.

Chaput, D., 1971, The Cliff: America’s First Great Copper Mine. 1st eds, Sequola Press, Kalamazoo, MI., 116 p.

Dablon, C.F., 1669-1670, Jesuite Relation. in Wilson, M.L., and Dyl, S.J., 1992, Michigan Copper Country. Mineralogical Record, Vol 23, No. 2: 5-72.

Kellogg, L.P., 1925, French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest. Madison, State Historical Society.

Martin, S.R., 1999, Wonderful Power: The Story of Ancient Copper Working in the Lake Superior Basin. Wayne State Univ. Press, Detroit, MI.




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Comments

Actually there were several earlier successful mining rushes. The midcontinent lead regions had commercial mining in the 18th and 19th centuries with a large rush in SW Wisconsin in the 1830's when the land was opened up for settlement. Northwest Georgia had a major gold rush in 1829. These areas all provided experienced miners for the 1849 California rush.

David Von Bargen
25th May 2008 4:23pm
Actually an entire band, trending southwest from Virgina down to Georgia provided for any number of areas/sites for Gold rushes, Recovery in Virginia began as early as 1804 from placier deposits, the mines produced up until the Civil War era (Franklin Gold Mine operated from 1825 to Civil War era, reaching 300 ft Lev., prod. $1,200,000 gold). The most productive of these sites, of course, were in Georgia.

Mark Heintzelman
25th May 2008 11:17pm
Paul,

I strongly recommend you have a look at the following paper (which can be downloaded from google books for free; just search for "Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall"):

Henwood, W.J. (1871): Observations on Metalliferous Deposits: On the Native Copper of Lake Superior. Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall 8(1), 385-489.

There is a wealth of quoted references in the footnotes (especially on pages 412-417), which provide a detailed account on various the various traces of ancient (Indian) workings found in and around the mines.

Peter Haas
16th Jun 2012 12:55pm

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